Joseph Conyers is a fit 38-year-old whose regular workout — like dead-lifting 315 pounds in three sets of 25 reps — favors weightlifting over cardio.
But on a recent Monday afternoon, as he tried to wrangle more than 100 teenagers toward a cohesive reading of the famous Fifth Symphony by Beethoven, Conyers got moving enough to break a sweat.
Nearing the end of a five-hour rehearsal of the Philadelphia School District’s All-City Orchestra, Conyers, now in his fifth year conducting the ensemble, perched on a podium on a stage at Girls High School.
Clad in dress pants and shirt with a striped rep tie, he tried to pull his young musicians through some difficult rhythmic passages. He waved his arms, stabbed a hand toward the percussion section, rose up to the toes of his snazzy loafers, and then dipped back down in a deep bend to coax a diminuendo in the woodwinds. The result of this highbrow Zumba session was a gloss of sweat on his close-cropped skull and two spreading perspiration marks on the back of his shirt.
“There we go, y’all,” said the Georgia native, breaking a wide smile. “It really sounds really good.” Then he prompted the students to give themselves a sitting ovation.
Conducting is something of a side hustle for Joseph Conyers. His real job puts him on the other side of the podium, usually on the stage of Verizon Hall, playing bass with the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he won the assistant principal chair in 2010, and now works beside Hal Robinson, the orchestra’s veteran principal bassist, who spotted Conyers’ talents as a teenager and helped guide him through four years at the elite Curtis Institute of Music.
“What makes Joe so unique is that we all take for granted that he’s one of the premier musicians on earth,” said Frank Machos, the Philadelphia School District’s executive director for Arts and Academic Enrichment, who helped recruit Conyers to the All-City post.
“He doesn’t just show up and play the music and go home. He’s always striving for more — more for the organization, more for the community. He’s a living example that there’s more to life than just being one of the world’s great musicians. And kids see that.”
Conyers makes a point of being visible, regularly giving inspirational talks to students. A few years ago, as he spoke to a musical honor society at a New Jersey high school, a parent was inspired.
“He spoke to the kids about the inherent power of music to teach life skills and entrepreneurial skills — whether they chose to make music a profession or not,” said Tad LeVan, a litigator who’d recently started his own firm in Philadelphia. “After hearing him I was just so motivated that I went up to him and said, 'I love what you’re doing. I want to be as helpful as I can.’”
So Conyers enlisted LeVan, an enthusiastic amateur musician, for the board of directors of Project 440, a nonprofit music education project that Conyers founded with several musicians in his hometown of Savannah. Transferred to Philly, Project 440 (the name refers to the frequency of the note musicians commonly use to get in tune with each other) helps public school students develop their musical skills and training into broader life skills, with an emphasis on building community.
“Most musicians in high school are not going to become professionals,” said Conyers, who serves as the organization’s executive director. “So why are they learning all these things? You can say it connects them to the arts and all that fun stuff. But I say, they can take all those skills that they learn in music and translate them into the jobs they have as adults. And the Project 440 twist is that they do this while thinking about the community all the way. So, never leaving people behind. Really figuring out a way to lift each other up.
“We teach entrepreneurship,” he added. “But it’s specifically social entrepreneurship. Investing in their communities. That, to me, is how the world should work. We’re using music and the arts to create better people. It’s really that simple.”
For example, Project 440’s Doing Good program is devoted to social entrepreneurship, training students over the course of 30 after-school classes to design and implement a community outreach initiative using music. The students learn to plan a presentation and pitch their idea in a “Shark Tank” like setting (though Project 440 more gently dubs it a “Dolphin Tank").
One of the Doing Good success stories is called Generation Music, conceived by two All-City woodwind players — Chloe Cooper and Claire Casanova — to introduce classical music to underserved schools. Starting with $500 in seed money from Project 440, the group found further outside funding and in 2018 registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Cooper and Casanova are now university music education majors.
Finishing the long All-City Orchestra rehearsal, Conyers rode down to South Philly High to observe the final class for this year’s Doing Good students. Arriving, he devoured a pear. “That was really, really good, and I was really hungry,” he said, before withdrawing to the back of the classroom to observe. He responded to the students’ presentations of their public service ideas with as much enthusiasm as he’d shown for the pear, which is the same enthusiasm he shows for almost everything.
It was dark and cold, and Conyers seemed a little fatigued as he rode back up Broad Street to his apartment at the Academy House, steps away from his workplace in Verizon Hall. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s new season had started, and a full slate of concerts lay ahead. That weekend, Conyers would begin teaching bass students at the Juilliard School in New York. The next week he would give a speech to a music foundation in Detroit and fly to London for chamber music concerts.
“Is it hard work? Yes,” Conyers said. “Is it tiring? Yes. But as long as I have the energy to do it — and provide a pathway for somebody else — I’m going to keep doing it.
“I’m only one person. But I can play my part.”